“Guardsdaughter? Don’t lie to me girl.”
I tried not to bristle at the implied judgment that my family could never be so exalted. “My father was a church guard. The Brothers christened us all with our names.”
“Was?” the hidden man who had addressed me before asked with something like real interest.
“Was. My family … they were carried off by the angels almost five winters ago. We served in a place on the other side of the peaks.”
The legal man asked, “And how did ye wind up here? The church excommunicate ye?”
Carefully as I did not want trouble in case Aunt was lurking I said, “No sir. Family took me in and then migrated to new barter routes.” I nearly choked on the words but got them passed my lips without vomiting.
With that the legal man lost interest, ceased his questions, filled out the sheet of skin and put his seal on it, handed it to the hidden man and then walked away to finish a few more late transactions. I stood there, still reeling from God’s timing.
I jerked my head towards the voice. “Sir?”
The third man who had not spoken to that point said, “Well, she’s polite enough.”
Ignoring him the man who had taken my paper said, “Are you so calm because you plan on running away?”
His question caught me off guard. “Run to where? To whom?”
I shrugged. “To me, this is freedom.”
After a moment he asked a thoughtful question. “Your former life was so bad?”
Carefully, thinking it might be another one of my Aunt’s games I searched the crowd. Hesitantly I asked, “Have you truly bought me?”
He sounded like a man that wasn’t used to his questions being answered with a question but in this case he seemed to let it go. “Aye. Five silvers.”
I exhaled in relief. “Aunt will be fit to be tied but that’s no longer my problem.” Moving my shoulders a bit to settle my small pack of belongings a bit more easily I asked, “What are my duties?”
The man was a long time answering but the disbelieving snort of one of his companions and the snickering of the other revealed at least part of my job before the man said, “Housekeeper.” His answer only caused his companions to increase their amused reaction.
For me I was not surprised. The only thing I yet worried about was if he expected me to serve his friends as well as himself. I didn’t let that show however and when I didn’t react the two other men slowly left off their hilarity. The hidden man said, “We have miles yet to cover before the stars come out. You’ll need to eat as we walk. Are your shoes fit for such travel? Is your water skin full?”
I decided then and there that him I would serve willingly and with as much grace as I could find. The Sisters at the church that gave us lessons said that slavery was wrong but that it existed in the world because humanity was sinful by nature and that in a sense we were all slaves of one sort or another, even those that claimed to be free. The Good Book explained that if there were going to be masters, servants, and slaves that each of us were required to be good ones in whatever capacity we found ourselves; that we had a responsibility to reflect our teachings at all times, not just when we were at the top of the food chain. Papa had told me that the mark of a free man or woman was revealed in how they treated those under their authority.
“My feet are toughened to walking but I have no water.”
We stopped at the pump to fill our skins. I heard familiar voices and instinctively hid behind the man with the hidden face.
“Let’s find her and take her back. We can get more for her putting her ter work as one o’ the girls.”
“Nah, let er go Gizzy. Yer gots yer coins though fewer than you thought, and it’ll buy enough grain to get to the winter camp.”
Still whining she asked, “Who’s gonna cook and clean?”
Philosophically Wash answered, “Shoulda thought o’ that afore yer put her in the pens.”
Aunt screeched, “It was your idea!”
Warningly he responded, “Were not and yer raise yer voice ter me like that again and I’ll backhand you inter next week.”
“Hah! You’ve not got the bollocks to pull it off.”
Their squabbling voices finally faded but I stayed where I was trying to calm my racing heart. One of the men asked jovially, “Friends of yours? Should we call them back so that you can say your goodbyes?” His question only made me want to hide behind the one that held my paper even more.
He said, “Enough Tad.” To me he asked, “You have a coat? We will be camping higher up and it will be cool.”
I reached behind me into my pack and pulled the thin garment that was both my cloak and my bedding by turn. I put it on and tied it in place. He sighed but nodded. From a pocket he pulled a cloth wrapped bundle. “Here. Eat as we walk but do not lag behind. The way is steep.”
I fell in behind the man whose name I still did not know. The bundle held two meat pies, greasy but stuffed with not just cooked, ground meat but with mashed vegetables as well. I took my time despite the hunger gnawing my insides; twisted guts from inhaling the rich food was not something I wanted on a long hike nor would the men appreciate the inevitable delay it would cause.
By the time we reached the place they had chosen to camp someone had gotten there before us, or so I thought. Instead, after a moment of observation, I realized the three men and the new people were part of the same travelling group. There were quiet greetings but it was late and many were already asleep. I was summarily ignored for a while so I stood quietly to the side. Finally the man beckoned me over to a wagon. “Crawl under and make your bed. I will return shortly.”
There was no threat in his voice but there was expectation of obedience in every syllable. I suppose I could have run away but that would be like stealing. The man had paid true coin for me, not just barter goods. In a very real sense he had also rescued me, rescued Aunt and Wash as well though they’d never know it. Before the first snow fell it would have been me or them, there was no doubt in my mind of that. So I owed him something, at least for a while, and if not him I owed God and needed to show proof that my upbringing was better than that of a dweller of the corrupted lands.
I had not meant to fall asleep but the day conspired to sap my strength. The next thing I remember is growing warmer and that startled me enough that I woke. “Easy,” a gruff voice sounded in my ear. “There is no need for silly hysterics. I have last watch and would like to get some rest.”
I wanted to tell him I’d never had hysterics in my life but with his cloak spread over us we both found sleep too quickly for me to even imagine the conversation that would have been.
I woke when he moved and then followed him out from under the wagon. He seemed uncomfortable and at a loss for words when we came out of the woods after seeing to our ablutions. Then he gave a shrug that was almost resentful and without a word turned and disappeared into the darkness.
I stood there, numb, wondering what I should be feeling before deciding it was best not to feel anything at all. I looked around and saw people silent and asleep around the coals of the fire that had been banked to last through the night. The boy that had been set to feed it had fallen over, derelict in his duty but none of the guards seemed to notice. Then off in the brush and trees that surrounded the camp I saw them.
Eyes. At least a dozen, maybe more. I swallowed the lump that had formed in my dry throat. What little spit I had was frozen and I couldn’t have squeaked a warning even had I been the type to make such noise. Slowly I pulled my sling from the pouch on my belt as well as a few pieces of ammunition that, out of habit, I had collected along the hike the evening before.
I looked around wondering where the guards were; where was the man? Was I seeing things? Did these dogs belong to the camp? Why did no one notice them but me?
Then I saw a large black specimen slink closer. And closer still. He was intent on a bundle that lay beside a woman. The bundle mewed just a bit and I could almost see the spittle dripping from the great fangs that gleamed in the moonlight. I almost waited too late.
There was a yelp of great pain right before the jaws could clamp on the baby to carry it away. The woman gave a piercing shriek and then there was snarling and snapping and the camp awoke in chaos. I took a limb from the fire and shook it to make it flame. Just in time too as one of the feral beasties tried to take me down at the back of the knees. I was uncomfortably familiar with such tactics and the mongrel got a singed snout and ear before I could lose a leg.
It was over in minutes. Man in numbers still triumphed over a pack of beasts though some might say there wasn’t that much difference between the two groups. The carcass of the dead dogs were pulled away and summarily skinned though their meat could not be consumed as there was no way to know what they had been dining on before they sought to munch on us. Feeding on something that had been living in a corrupted area was a sentence to a long and agonizing death whether you be human or animal.
There were some injuries amongst the travelers but not many and none were life threatening though they would be painful for a few days and would need to be warded against infection. I saw the camp had a healer so I didn’t say a word. The most painful of all though was the paddling the boy who was supposed to be tending the fire was receiving at the hands of a large man who appeared to be the wagon master. I closed my ears to his howls as he could have cost many their lives.
I saw an old woman struggle to right her cooking pot and bent to help her. She looked at me curiously but offered no words merely pointed and with motions told me where things belonged. That is where the man found me some minutes later.
He told said, “So you’ve found some work. Good. Continue as Miz Lana directs you until I return.”
I nodded and then continued my task. He stared at me a moment longer then went about doing his own straightening though it seemed more about setting people to right than the mess of belongings strewn under everyone’s feet from the melee. The old woman reminded me of my Old Annie. Her sighs said nothing and everything, as if she had seen far too much in this life to put up with the nonsense of the young. “Well girl, since it appears I’m to be your keeper for a bit ye mind telling me your name?”
“Never heard such a name before.”
“It was my mother’s name, before she married my papa. The Brothers thought it fitting to christen me thus.”
“A church born are ye?”
“My father was raised in a church orphanage. He protected those that had raised and protected him as a child. Mam and I did our duty as well.”
“Hmmm.” After a moment she asked, “Are ye fit for work or only for churching duties?”
I knew what she meant but took no offense. I realized early on as I traveled with Aunt that our church was different from many others that seemed to only be concerned with study of the Word and singing the old songs. I mean no disrespect, studying the Word is a high calling that we should all aspire to, but we are also called to serve. Our church had not been concerned with the soul alone but with the body that housed it as well. We didn’t live a cloistered life away from the rest of the world; we believed we’re expected to share the knowledge of the difference between good and evil and where both come from. To that end it was too hard for people to hear the Word if their ears were forever filled with the cries of an empty stomach or the pain of an illness. Rather than explain all that I answered simply, “I can work.”
“Hmmm. I supposed we’ll see. Gid and his brothers eat at my fire this trip. Best that he see what the pig in the poke he bought can do sooner as later. Start parching the morning brew. They drink it by the bucketful so you’d best hope it be done well or they’ll be worthless and foul the rest of the day.”
Putting two and two together I realized the man who had bought me was named Gid. The two men that had been with him were likely his brothers and one had been called Tad. I stored the meager information away and then concentrated on the task at hand.
Wash had been another one that demanded a good morning brew though he often wasn’t awake to drink it until the sun was high in the sky; most of Aunt’s men had been the same, especially the ones she married. If it wasn’t to their liking there’d be consequences, usually painful or humiliating. Over the last two years Wash had found plenty to complain about but never my brew or my cooking.
I was frying mush patties when the one called Tad came over. “Oh Lord Miz Lana, you mean you let her touch the food?! I wanna eat, not worry if some dimwit has ruined it or poisoned me.”
He had no idea how true his words could have rung had I been some other type of female but rather than say a word or make a sound I pulled my calm around me like a wall. His words couldn’t touch me. Nor the other one either when he arrived and said much the same thing. I simply continued to cook as they complained and exasperated the old woman.
“Enough.” I knew that voice and had a feeling I would come to know the tone. Gid had arrived.
“Tad, Ern … eat and then load your gear. Or don’t eat and load your gear. Your choice.” I heard the implicit threat as well as the brothers did. They grumbled but allowed Miz Lana to fill their mugs with brew. Since I didn’t hear any strangling or sputtering – or feel the soles of their boots kicking me into the cookfire – I took it that the brew was well enough to suit them. In fact they made no sound at all as they inhaled the fried mush patties almost as quickly as I could move them from the pan to the serving platter. The only sound that escaped them was the occasional hiss as they took one that was still as hot as the skillet that it had just been kissing.
From the corner of my eye I saw that Gid also took his share. I was scrapping the last patty from the pan when he gave a look at Tad and Ern. They grumbled but stopped feeding their faces and turned to set their gear to rights as the sky turned pink above the peaks. Gid divided the remaining patties between Miz Lana and me and said, “We likely won’t stop until we make camp tonight.” With that he turned away. I folded the patties that had been left for me in the piece of cloth that my supper had come in and put them in my cloak pocket; there was still work to do.
Miz Lana nodded in his direction as he walked away. “You see he stopped those other two gluttons from eating all there was. Gid takes care of things so do him right girl. You may not be what was expected but if you can cook it will be more than what he was after before. And being a little dim your feelings won’t get hurt on what you’ll never have.” I filed that cryptic bit away. Had it been under any other circumstances I might have brought myself to ask a question but I still had too little understanding of the man called Gid, the man that had bought me, to risk it. Miz Lana certainly wasn’t volunteering anything more as she was busy putting her hand to cleaning and packing her own gear.
As a matter of habit I scooped some of the red hot coals into a lidded clay pot from my pack which I then wrapped in a couple of protective furs. The pot secured in its normal place I glanced up to catch several women watching me from the corner of their eye and a few openly staring. I ignored them. The Tavern whores used to do the same thing. Usually they were trying to provoke me to some mistake to get me in trouble, or make me feel like I was already making one, though often enough it could also be something more sinister to it. Being on the bottom of the pecking order in such a group was a dangerous place and I quickly learned to tread carefully and make as few ripples as possible.